Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Lunar: Dragon Song

A Vile Dragon Song

Game Arts’ Lunar franchise began on Sega’s compact disc peripheral, gaining a sizeable following outside Japan thanks in part to translator Working Designs’ localization, making their mark by injecting an ungodly amount of popular culture references when they similarly didn’t exist in the Japanese iterations of what they translated. However, the series wouldn’t get past two main installments, The Silver Star and Eternal Blue, both which would see endless remakes on various systems. The latest original installment, Lunar: Dragon Song, released on the Nintendo DS as one of its inaugural RPGs, and demonstrates well why its developer wouldn’t move beyond two primary titles.

Dragon Song is a prequel to Silver Star by a millennium, focusing on a delivery boy named Jian Campbell caught up in a conflict to stop the Vile Tribe from taking over the eponymous world of Lunar, which the goddess Althena created out of the Blue Star’s moon and protected with four dragons. Aside from the backstory, the narrative isn’t really anything special, with little connection to chronologically-future Lunar games, scarce character development aside from a twist regarding one characters (filched from Silver Star), and a lackluster localization from Ubisoft that, while legible, is full of errors, unnatural dialogue, overuse of exclamation points and ellipses, and the like.

That leaves the game mechanics to shoulder the burden, but unfortunately, things don’t fare any better in that regard. Players will immediately notice that dashing, whether in towns or in dungeons, gradually chips away the party’s HP, which can really add up early on, and if their health is low enough, they’ll be totally unable to dash until HP is restored. As with other Game Arts titles within and without the Lunar franchise, enemies are visible in dungeons, and contacting them initiates fights. However, their movement behavior is sometimes erratic, sometimes running from the player’s characters or charging them regardless of their levels.

Battles themselves are turn-based, but to call the game “traditional” would be a stretch. To be honest, true traditional command-based battle would have been preferable, since Dragon Song does things significantly worse in this regard. The player’s party of three characters, with the lineup changing sporadically throughout the game, faces off against a number of enemies that populate the top and bottom screens of the Nintendo DS, with adversaries almost always outnumbering the player’s party, oftentimes accounting for lengthy, drawn-out fights especially if the player yearns to conserve MP.

Although players can speed up battles by holding the L and R buttons, encounters still prove lengthy, with many enemies taking a higher-than-average time to attack one or more of the player’s characters. Outside battle, moreover, the player can choose between two different modes of fighting foes: Combat Mode, where the enemies drop only items, or Virtue Mode, where defeated adversaries yield Althena Conduct, which is, to say, experience that occasionally levels characters. Considering that virtually every other RPG in the world rewards both experience and items in combat, along with money, this design decision makes little sense.

However, there is a minor bright spot in this unusual segregation of item and experience combat rewards, which is that many areas in dungeons have blue chests that defeating a certain number of enemies in Virtue Mode unlocks (with a clock on the bottom screen chipping away at checkmarks indicating the number of vanquished adversarial parties after one full rotation), and fulfilling this requirement partially restores the party’s HP and MP. Blue chests can actually contain helpful items such as better equipment and money, the latter of which also has its own separate means of acquisition.

With the protagonist being a delivery boy, Gad’s Express, the company for which he works, serves as the primary method of acquiring money in the form of missions that require him to deliver a certain number of items obtained from Combat Mode to various customers across the game’s setting. One major issue is that fast-travel across the game’s world is unavailable until before the final dungeon, necessitating that that player traverses the same environs repeatedly to get to towns with the NPCs having the requests, and even waste significant time searching for said delivery customers. Furthermore, said characters sometimes have inconsistent names.

Another issue is that Dragon Song doesn’t have an in-game database of which enemies drop what items. As for the commands the player can issue their characters in combat, they include attacking, using an MP-consuming ability, using consumable items, or using cards with special effects sometimes obtained from defeating foes in Combat Mode (I made especial use of one that fully restored the party’s MP throughout the game). Regarding attacking, the player cannot target specific enemies at all, since instead, the game randomly selects which foes characters attack. Some enemies, furthermore, may defend to reduce damage, a feature unavailable to the player’s characters.

In the end, the game definitely sets a new wooden spoon standard for turn-based roleplaying game combat, given its segregated systems of obtaining items, experience, and money, which adds unnecessary grinding throughout the course of the narrative, and is inexcusable since other titles in the genre reward all three often simultaneously in their battles. The “turbo” mode in combat also does little to assuage the length of many fights, and the need to retrace the same areas the player has visited prior to accessing the final dungeon makes moneymaking even more difficult. In summation, combat becomes a chore throughout the game.

Not even control can save the game, given things such as the aforementioned health drain of dashing in dungeons and in towns, not to mention the sluggish, clunky menus, the need to go into the items menu to change equipment, the lack of in-game compendia on what particular enemies drop, the difficulty of finding delivery customers at times, the lack of maps for dungeons, the absence of fast-travel until right before the final dungeon, the lack of a soft-reset feature (which would have been handy since enemies can steal your equipped items, and you don’t get them back at the end of battle), and so forth. Pretty much the only saving grace is the save (mostly)-anywhere feature.

Perhaps the only remotely-passable aspect of Dragon Song is its aural presentation, starting with the title screen theme, which definitely has the feel of the Lunar franchise. The town themes are good as well, as are some of the dungeon themes such as the sitar-laden jungle track, and the battle music is enjoyable as well, although more diversity regarding standard fight tracks would have been welcome, given that the main battle tune will constantly loop, given the length of battles. The lack of voicework is forgivable, since more often than not it hurts more than helps, and along with decent sound effects, the aurals are one area where the game doesn’t hurt too badly.

The title screen also hints at the good art direction of the game, with every character, including NPCs, having their own portrait, although many of these are palette swaps. Enemies in battle too frequently contain recycled designs, and the edges of the character and monster sprites in combat are noticeably pixilated, although their animation and effects are okay. The spritework is at its best outside battle, with character sprites containing good proportions, although they don’t show any emotion, and there’s a total absence of shadows. Fans of the two main Lunar games will also bemoan the absence of anime cutscenes, and overall, the visuals aren’t a major draw.

Finally, total playtime ranges from one to two days total, and to replay the game, frankly, would be tortuous, given the unenjoyable nature of performing guild missions, lack of storyline variations, etc.

Overall, Lunar: Dragon Song isn’t exactly a worthwhile exploration of the expanded series universe, given aspects such as its separate systems of acquiring items, experience, and money, which singlehandedly adds hours of superfluous playtime. The control is also clunky, the main narrative doesn’t cover new ground, the localization hurts more than help, the visuals leave plentiful room for improvement, and there’s almost no reason to come back for more, with only the audio being remotely passable. One would hope that a remake would rectify its issues, but the franchise has remained inert since the PlayStation Portable’s Silver Star Harmony, so the series’ future is up in the air.

The Good:
+Passable audio.

The Bad:
-Separate systems for acquiring items, experience, and money.
-Clunky control.
-Weak storyline.
-Lackluster localization.
-Graphics leave room for improvement.
-No reason to replay.

The Bottom Line:
Probably the weakest entry of a series that already has its share of weak installments.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo DS
Game Mechanics: 0.5/10
Controls: 1.0/10
Story: 0.5/10
Localization: 0.5/10
Music/Sound: 5.5/10
Graphics: 2.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 0/10
Difficulty: Artificial
Playing Time: 1-2 Days

Overall: 1.5/10

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